Students to gain experience at new CentraCare senior center

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Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University students studying a wide range of health-related fields will be "PACEing" themselves soon.

Students enrolled in the College of Health and Human Services soon will have hands-on educational opportunities galore, thanks to Kalamazoo's new Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly--PACE. The program is being brought to Kalamazoo through CentraCare in Battle Creek, one of 80 PACE programs in the United States.

The new CentraCare location is set to open in about a year in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo at 445 W. Michigan Ave. and will be operated jointly with the CentraCare center in Battle Creek's Burnham Brook Community Center. The new Kalamazoo CentraCare will provide a rich learning environment for WMU students studying occupational therapy, medicine, physician assistant, nursing, speech pathology, audiology and social work as they assist older Kalamazoo County residents.

"This is a terrific program and we're very excited about it coming to Kalamazoo," says Dr. Maureen Mickus, a gerontologist and WMU associate professor of occupational therapy, who sits on CentraCare's board of directors. "We envision many WMU programs linked to CentraCare."

The center will serve low-income seniors across the county and assist them with a wide range of health care needs, including doctor checkups, prescriptions, medical equipment, nursing care, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, social interaction, dentistry, lab tests, radiology and much more. Clients can get help with washing their clothes, bathing and other personal needs, have breakfast or lunch or have a word with a part-time chaplain. CentraCare's mission is to keep seniors independent as long as possible, avoiding expensive and unwanted stays in nursing homes.

"It's considered a one-stop point of care," Mickus says, "with the primary goal of keeping older persons in the community."

The new center will be the sixth such program in Michigan. In addition to Battle Creek, there are already PACE programs in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Detroit and programs also have been approved for Berrien and Washtenaw counties.

WMU students will play a key role in CentraCare's Kalamazoo operation. The center will provide especially fertile ground for students studying fields emphasizing interdisciplinary care. They will interact closely with the center's estimated 225 total clients and the approximately 110 seniors expected to visit the center each day.

"We anticipate a number of our current and future students, from a wide variety of disciplines, getting involved," Mickus says.

PACE is a model of care bringing all senior services together under one umbrella. It grew out of treatment programs designed for older Asian Americans in San Francisco in the early 1970s, says Rod Auton, CentraCare's chief executive officer, who also will oversee the Kalamazoo center's operation. In 1999, the PACE model was certified by Medicare, and CentraCare was started in Battle Creek in 2007, opening to clients in 2009.

Most participants in PACE programs are dually eligible under both Medicare and Medicaid, Auton says.

"They're a relatively small segment of the older adult population, but tend to be the most costly to take care of," Auton says.

But saving money is only part of it. Program participants benefit from better coordination of their health care services and live longer, healthier, happier lives in their own homes.

"When somebody goes into a nursing home, they often lose their ability to be independent," Mickus says. "In one study, 30 percent of elders said they would rather die than go to a nursing home. It's very rare that an individual wants to live in an institution, which can be very isolating. CentraCare allows people, even those who are frail, to stay where they want to be while also being connected."

Occupational therapy places a major emphasis on safety, Mickus says. Older residents want to stay in their own homes, but can they continue to take care of themselves, get to appointments, manage their medications and cook, clean and do other household chores safely?

"CentraCare hits a lot of those issues right on," Mickus says. "In this way, we can respect autonomy and keep them safe."